Poverty Doesn’t Cause Terrorism

Freedom squelches terrorist violence (Harvard Gazette)

A John F. Kennedy School of Government researcher has cast doubt on the widely held belief that terrorism stems from poverty, finding instead that terrorist violence is related to a nation’s level of political freedom. Associate Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie examined data on terrorism and variables such as wealth, political freedom, geography, and ethnic fractionalization for nations that have been targets of terrorist attacks. Abadie, whose work was published in the Kennedy School’s Faculty Research Working Paper Series, included both acts of international and domestic terrorism in his analysis.

Though after the 9/11 attacks most of the work in this area has focused on international terrorism, Abadie said terrorism originating within the country where the attacks occur actually makes up the bulk of terrorist acts each year. According to statistics from the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base for 2003, which Abadie cites in his analysis, there were 1,536 reports of domestic terrorism worldwide, compared with just 240 incidents of international terrorism.

Before analyzing the data, Abadie believed it was a reasonable assumption that terrorism has its roots in poverty, especially since studies have linked civil war to economic factors. However, once the data was corrected for the influence of other factors studied, Abadie said he found no significant relationship between a nation’s wealth and the level of terrorism it experiences. “In the past, we heard people refer to the strong link between terrorism and poverty, but in fact when you look at the data, it’s not there. This is true not only for events of international terrorism, as previous studies have shown, but perhaps more surprisingly also for the overall level of terrorism, both of domestic and of foreign origin,” Abadie said.

But, then, how do we explain all the terrorism during the Great Depression?

Oh. Never mind.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chad Evans says:

    Muhammed Atta grew up in a Middle Class neighborhood in Saudi Arabia along with several other Al Qaida terrorists as well.

  2. McGehee says:

    This is what my wife would call a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious).

    Which would explain why it took a Harvard study to bring the news to academia. And I’m betting the so-called MSM never do get it.

  3. James,

    Timeliness isn’t exactly one of their strengths. The NBER issued a study two years ago that showed as much.

    A little common sense, like in your last sentence, is helpful as well. If poverty were the root of terrorism, we would be attacking sub-Saharan Africa now rather than an oil-rich country.

  4. Hang on. If this were true, then it would imply that converting Iraq to a democracy would significantly reduce the level of terrorism emanating from the Middle East…